1. Except Jehovah build the house, those who build it labor in vain except Jehovah keep the city the watchman watcheth in vain.2. It is in vain for you in hastening to rise early, to go late to rest, to eat the bread of sorrows: for thus will he give sleep to his beloved.
1. Except Jehovah build the house. There is no reason why the Jews should deny that this Psalm was composed by Solomon. They think that the letter l, lamed, which we translate of, is equivalent to, in behalf of Solomon; which is at variance with common usage, for such a title in all cases designates the author. Accordingly, they absurdly devise a new sense, for which there is no necessity, it being very suitable for Solomon, who was endued with the spirit of wisdom in the affairs of government, to discourse of things which he knew and had experience about. In affirming that God governs the world and the life of man, he does so for two reasons: First, whatever prosperous event may fall out to men, their ingratitude is instantly manifested by their ascribing it wholly to themselves; and thus God is defrauded of the honor which is his due. Solomon, to correct such a perverse error, declares, that nothing happens prosperously to us except in so far as God blesses our proceedings. Secondly, his purpose was to beat down the foolish presumption of men, who, setting God aside, are not afraid to undertake to do anything, whatever it may be, in exclusive reliance upon their own wisdom and strength. Stripping them, therefore, of that which they groundlessly arrogate to themselves, he exhorts them to modesty and the invocation of God. He does not, however, reject either the labor, the enterprises, or the counsels of men; for it is a praiseworthy virtue diligently to discharge the duties of our office. It is not the will of the Lord that we should be like blocks of wood, or that we should keep our arms folded without doing anything; but that we should apply to use all the talents and advantages which he has conferred upon us. It is indeed true that the greatest part of our labors proceeds from the curse of God; and yet although men had still retained the integrity of their primitive state, God would have had us to be employed, even as we see how Adam was placed in the garden of Eden to dress it. (Genesis 2:15.) Solomon, therefore, does not condemn watchfulness, a thing which God approves; nor yet men's labor, by which when they undertake it willingly, according to the commandment of God, they offer to him all acceptable sacrifice; but lest, blinded by presumption, they should forcibly appropriate to themselves that which belongs to God, he admonishes them that their being busily occupied will profit them nothing, except in so far as God blesses their exertions. By the word house he means not only a building of wood or stone, but he comprehends the whole domestic order and government of a family, even as a little after by the word city he denotes not only the buildings or enclosure of the walls, but also the general state of the whole commonwealth. There is likewise a synecdoche in the words builder and keeper; for he intends to say in general that whatever labor, foresight, and skill men may employ in maintaining a family, or in preserving a city, will be to no purpose unless God grant from heaven a prosperous issue to the whole.
It behoves us to remember what I have just now touched upon, that since the minds of men are commonly possessed with such headstrong arrogance as leads them to despise God, and to magnify beyond measure their own means and advantages, nothing is of more importance than to humble them, in order to their being made to perceive that whatever they undertake it shall dissolve into smoke, unless God in the exercise of pure grace cause it to prosper. When philosophers argue concerning the political affairs of a state they ingeniously gather together whatever seems to them to answer their purpose -- they acutely point out the means of erecting a commonwealth, and on the other hand the vices by which a well-regulated state is commonly corrupted; in short, they discourse with consummate skill upon everything that is necessary to be known on this subject, except that they omit the principal point -- which is, that men, however much they may excel in wisdom and virtue, and whatever may be the undertakings in which they may engage, can effect nothing, unless in so far as God stretches forth his hand to them, or rather makes use of them as his instruments. Which of the philosophers ever acknowledged that a politician is nothing else but an instrument guided by the hand of God? Yea, rather they held that good management on the part of man constituted the chief cause of the happiness of the social body. Now, since mortal men thus rise up with profane boldness to build cities, and to order the state of the whole world, the Holy Spirit justly reproves such madness. Let us then so occupy ourselves, each according to the measure of his ability and the nature of his office, as that at the same time the praise of the success attending our exertions may remain exclusively with God. The partition which many devise -- that he who has behaved himself valiantly, while he leaves the half of the praise to God, may take the other half to himself, is deserving of all condemnation. The blessing of God should have the whole share and exclusively hold the throne.
Now, if our terrestrial condition depends entirely upon the good pleasure of God, with what wings shall we fly up into heaven? When a house is planned, or a certain manner of life is chosen -- yea, even when laws are enacted and justice administered, all this is nothing else than to creep upon the earth; and yet the Holy Spirit declares, that all our endeavors in this way are fruitless and of no value. So much the less to be borne with, then, is the folly of those who strive to penetrate even into heaven by their own power. Farther, we may gather from this doctrine, that it is not wonderful to find in the present day the state of the world so troubled and confused as it actually is -- justice put to flight in cities, the husband and the wife mutually accusing each other, fathers and mothers complaining of their children -- in short, all bewailing their own condition. For how few are to be found who, in their vocation, turn to God, and who, being rather inflated with arrogance, do not wickedly exalt themselves? God then justly renders this sad reward to ungrateful men when he is defrauded of his honor. But were all men humbly to submit themselves to the providence of God, there is no doubt that this blessing which Solomon here commends would shed its lustre on all parts of our life, both public and private.
The verb ml, amal, which we have translated to labor, signifies not only to employ one's self in something or other, but also to busy one's self even to lassitude and distress. I have said that by the word keepers is to be understood not only those who are appointed to keep watch, but all magistrates and judges. If they are characterized by vigilance, it is the gift of God. There is, however, need of another vigilance -- that of God; for unless he keep watch out of heaven no perspicacity of men will be sufficient to guard against dangers.
2. It is vain for you in hastening to rise early. Solomon now expresses more plainly that men in vain wear themselves out with toiling, and waste themselves by fasting to acquire riches, since these also are a benefit bestowed only by God. The more effectually to move them, he addresses himself to every man in particular. It is, says he, in vain for you He particularizes two means which are thought to contribute in an eminent degree to the amassing of riches. It is not surprising to find those growing rich in a short time who spare no exertion, but consume night and day in plying their occupations, and allow themselves only scanty fare from the product of their labor. Solomon, however, affirms that neither living at a small expense, nor diligence in business will by themselves profit anything at all. Not that he forbids us to practice temperance in our diet and to rise early to engage in our worldly business; but to stir us up to prayer, and to calling upon God, and also to recommend gratitude for the divine blessings, he brings to nought whatever would obscure the grace of God. Consequently, we shall then enter upon our worldly avocations in a right way when our hope depends exclusively upon God, and our success in that case will correspond to our wishes. But if a man, taking no account of God, eagerly makes haste, he will bring ruin upon himself by his too precipitate course. It is not, therefore, the design of the Prophet to encourage men to give way to sloth, so that they should think upon nothing all their life long, but fall asleep and abandon themselves to idleness- his meaning rather is, that, in executing what God has enjoined upon them, they should always begin with prayer and calling upon his name, offering to him their labors that he may bless them. The expression, the bread of sorrows, may be explained in two ways, either as denoting what is acquired by hard and anxious toil, or what is eaten with disquietude of mind; just as we see parsimonious and close-handed persons, when they have scarcely tasted a bit of bread, pulling back their hand from their mouth. It is of no great importance which of these senses is adopted; for we are simply taught that parsimonious men profit nothing -- no not even when through their own niggardliness they grudge to eat as much as nature requires.
For thus will he give sleep to his beloved. The inspired writer intimates that the blessing of God, of which he has spoken, is actually seen in his children and servants. It will not suffice to believe this doctrine -- that whatever, men attempt is to no purpose; it is necessary that the promise be added, in order to their being led with assured hope to perform their duty. The sentence may be read either -- he will give sleep to his beloved, or, he will give in sleeping; that is, he will give them those things which unbelievers labor to acquire by their own industry. The particle, kn, ken, thus, is put to express certainty; for with the view of producing a more undoubted persuasion of the truth -- that God gives food to his people without any great care on their part -- which seems incredible, and a fiction, Solomon points to the thing as it were with the finger. He indeed speaks as if God nourished the slothfulness of his servants by his gentle treatment; but as we know that men are created with the design of their being occupied, and as in the subsequent Psalm we shall find that the servants of God are accounted happy when they eat the labor of their hands, it is certain that the word sleep is not to be understood as implying slothfulness, but a placid labor, to which true believers subject themselves by the obedience of faith. Whence proceeds this so great ardor in the unbelieving, that they move not a finger without a tumult or bustle, in other words, without tormenting themselves with superfluous cares, but because they attribute nothing to the providence of God! The faithful, on the other hand, although they lead a laborious life, yet follow their vocations with composed and tranquil minds. Thus their hands are not idle, but their minds repose in the stillness of faith, as if they were asleep. If it is again objected, that God's people are often agitated with distressing cares, and that, oppressed with pinching poverty, and destitute of all resources, they are anxiously concerned about the morrow, I answer, that if faith and love to God were perfect in his servants, his blessing, of which the Prophet makes mention, would be manifest. Whenever they are tormented above measure, this happens through their own default, in not resting entirely upon the providence of God. I farther add, that God punishes them more severely than unbelievers, because it is profitable for them to be agitated by disquietude for a season, that at length they may attain to this peaceful sleep. In the meantime, however, God's grace prevails, and always shines forth in the midst of darkness, in respect of his cherishing his children as it were by sleep.